WASHINGTON – The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law on Wednesday applauded the dismissal of a case in the Eastern District Court of Arkansas that highlighted the systemic problems inherent in the use of a for-profit company to manage peoples’ lives through the criminal justice system.
The case of Justice Network v. Craighead County, et al, marked an unusual turn in which a private probation company sued two Craighead County judges, Tommy Fowler and David Boling, who ended the use of the company’s services in Craighead County.
“This is an important victory for poor people, too many of whom are African American or minority, who face a cycle of escalating debt and unnecessary incarceration at the hands of predatory for-profit companies,” said Kristen Clarke, President and Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee. “The Justice Network put profit before people and, as a result, ran its business with utter disregard for the well-being or constitutional rights of the communities most impacted by its predatory and abusive business practices. The dismissal of this lawsuit also vindicates the efforts of reform-minded judges who are working to ensure equal justice and due process in their courtrooms, and to consequently protect the civil rights of minorities and indigent defendants.”
From 1997 until February 2017, the Justice Network served as the sole provider of misdemeanor probation supervision in Craighead County. The company collected upwards of $500,000 a year off the backs of largely poor and disproportionately minority Arkansans in Craighead County. The company’s practice of seeking warrants for the arrest of individuals on probation for failure to pay and/or attend a class or assignment scheduled by the private company had a harmful effect, pushing thousands of people in Craighead into cycles of debt, fear, poverty, and incarceration.
In August, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Venable LLP filed an amicus curiae, “friend of the court,” brief stating that Judges Fowler and Boling were justified in ending the use of the company’s services in the county’s probation system on both law and policy grounds.
“This is a significant decision for poor people facing the threat of incarceration in modern day debtors’ prisons,” said Rachael O’Bryan of Venable LLP. “As the court found, the law protects judges who abandon unlawful probation practices and choose instead to adhere to the Constitution’s command to account for an individual’s financial wherewithal before locking up that individual for failure to pay a fine. We hope yesterday’s ruling encourages other state judges presiding over similarly unconstitutional probation regimes to make the same choice that Judges Fowler and Boling did.”
The money-making scheme pursued by the Justice Network undermined faith in the criminal justice system and caused widespread harm by systematically perpetuating unfair and unequal treatment of poor Arkansans. On just one day in August 2016, more than 80 percent of individuals who appeared before Judge Boling in court were jailed solely on warrants issued for failure to pay—not because of any criminal wrongdoing. The spiraling debt and hopelessness of thousands of County residents, described by some as “a maze with no exit,” more than justifies the Judges’ decisions to end their courts’ relationship with the company and institute an “Amnesty Program” to forgive fees owed by the probationers to the company.
The injustices perpetuated against poor and minority communities through the collection of fines and fees in the criminal justice system was also the subject of a report released by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in September. The report found that there is a “financial incentive for private probation companies to keep debtors in the system” because “’every person who successfully [pays his or her debts] is a lost source of revenue.’” The “incentives for these third parties to profit are often in conflict with the goals of the justice system.”